TRUE STORIES — Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing
I was amused, but not surprised, last week when my poet brother, John, told me there was mounting controversy on social media around whether Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem was more a speech (and not that good of one) than it was a poem.
As a poet and songwriter whose been sending off my scribblings for attempted publication for 45 years (and most times getting rejected), I’ve come to believe that, like beauty, what is or is not a poem (or one good enough for publication) is in the eye of the beholder.
I’ve come to appreciate the take on poetry put forth by Howard Moss, a quiet, unassuming man, who served as poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine for almost four decades. When asked his definition of a good poem, he said, "One I like."
I certainly don’t see the Gorman controversy as bad; the more dialogue we have around poetry the better, as it gets people to recognize and appreciate it all the more.
There’s poetry in Hallmark cards, Miranda’s “Hamilton,” with its hip-hop raps and songs, Hank William’s laments, Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Ginsberg’s rants, Robert Frost’s rhymes, and Dylan’s dirges, etc. … but we aren’t required to like any or all of it.
And who qualifies as a poet anyway? Walt Whitman, widely regarded as the father of American poetry, wrote this definition of a poet the in preface to the 1855 edition of his “Leaves of Grass,” “If he breathes into anything that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe.”
Truly, to use Walt Whitman’s description is to see poets and poetry at every turn. Kansas State College (now PSU) graduate, James Tate, who was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in poetry, once said, “Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing.”
He may well have heard this first expressed by Little Balkans poet, teacher, publisher, and historian, Gene DeGruson, who mentored Tate at KSC and encouraged him to pursue poetry at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. DeGruson had an exquisite eye for all things literary, including lines in old newspaper articles that he’d edit out and publish as “found poems.”
Tate was seen early on as something of an “enfant terrible,” whose unconventional, surrealistic, comic writing style captivated some critics … and annoyed others. He was in good company.
Consider this excerpt from a review of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” by the young Charles Eliot Norton, later editor of the prestigious North American Review: “The writer’s scorn for the wonted usages of good writing, extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect on the reader’s mind; . . . the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.”
When the controversy over Gorman’s inaugural presentation being a poem or a speech settles down, poets and critics could always take up the issue of proper poem punctuation – which runs from the classic use of capitals, dashes, commas, and periods to the atypical use — or total absence — of all four, as seen in the work of the most esteemed American poets, including Emily Dickinson, e.e. cummings, and W.S. Merwin.
I’ve had some great exchanges with poetry editors who took the time to read, critique, edit, and make suggestions that, most times, improved my writing.
The most memorable evaluation of my poetry, though, came 40 years ago when I was presenting to a 4th grade class at Lakeside Elementary as part of the Art in the Schools program.
After discussing the George Catlin painting The White Cloud, Chief of the Iowas, I led the students in writing a spontaneous group poem on the blackboard and then read one of mine, a rhyming ballad called “Football Fred and The Misfits.”
When I’d finished, a boy in the back raised his hand and called out, “Mr. Knoll, I have a question.”
“Yes?” I responded.
“Is that a real poem … or did you write it yourself?”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com